The six ancient Oriental Orthodox (OO) Churches–Coptic, Syriac, Armenian (the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin and the Armenian Catholicate in Cilicia), Indian, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches–include within their scope the the Syriac Orthodox Church in India, the Brahmavar Western Orthodox Community (organized into episcopal diocese), the French Coptic Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Patriarchates in Jerusalem and Constantinople (which are considered autonomous). These churches continue to provide a witness for Jesus Christ and his teachings to the world. Despite the huge political, religious, and geographical challenges, these ancient churches have survived and continue to provide the true essence of holy Orthodoxy to the modern world.
With the survival of ancient Orthodoxy in mind, it is time that we focus on strengthening alliances between our sister OO churches to ensure future conciliar unity. As we all know, the relations between local Orthodox Churches are of conciliar nature. The Coptic Pope, presently Pope Tawadros II, is considered to be the spiritual father of the OO Communion and is given primacy of honor among the OO Churches as a part of the homage paid to the Alexandrian Throne of St Mark the Evangelist. However, while the Coptic Pope does enjoy primacy of honor, he does not have any authority over sister churches.
There are a number of existing gaps between the ancient OO churches that need to be addressed by both church leadership and the laity. One reason for the existing gaps is ignorance; many OO Christians themselves are unaware of their sister churches. For example, this author has met several Copts who were not aware that the British Orthodox Church was canonically a part of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. An OO Christian should have a basic understanding of the autocephalous and autonomous nature of the communion of the Church.
It is the tendency of most OO clergy and laity to focus solely on their own churches. This contributes to existing gaps between the ancient OO churches. Let us consider the case of pilgrimage. There are limited common pilgrimage centers for OO churches. In the Holy land, there are pilgrimage centers for the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. Apart from the Holy Land, there are several other important centers of Orthodox Christianity such as in Egypt, India, Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Eretria. However, these centers remain unknown to the majority of those belonging to the OO communion. And while it is true that visiting pilgrims may not have a chance to visit all sister OO pilgrimage centers, the leadership of the communion of OO churches has a great responsibility in educating their faithful about the culture, worship, traditions, and specialties of the sister OO churches. Otherwise, they will remain alienated. Sunday school, as well as other forms of theological education, serve in equipping OO clergy and laity with the fundamentals of the OO communion. Efforts must be made to form a common syllabus shared within the OO communion and to dedicate exclusive learning sessions based on that syllabus.
If we also consider the case of what is considered to be the Orthodox Diaspora, another reason for the gaps between the ancient OO churches is evident. There are several ethnic OO churches throughout the world, but they keep to themselves mostly. Interactions between sister OO communities of the Orthodox Diaspora happen once in a blue moon. Inter-Orthodox celebrations on special occasions such as the Nativity do occur, as well as gatherings at ecumenical events with other church communities. However, while there have been such interactions, they have not resulted in a permanent conciliar global structure for OO churches.
Action must be taken to establish a sense of common identity for the OO churches, which should commence at the grassroots level. For example, the Armenian Orthodox Christians living in a village in Armenia should be aware that there exists a church established by St Thomas, which is more than 1500 years old, and that it belongs to her sister church in India. Likewise, the faithful in India and Ethiopia should have a good understanding of the Armenian Genocide and sufferings of the Armenian Orthodox Christians. At the very least, Orthodox Christians should be aware of the names of the Patriarch/Catholicos of their sister OO churches. Every OO Christian should develop a common understanding of the ancient OO communion.
The Addis Ababa Conference
In the year 1965, the entire family of the OO communion came together on a single platform at the Addis Ababa Conference in Ethiopia. It was a great occasion of unity and Orthodox brotherhood. All OO Church primates were seated together; they spoke and worshiped together. A number of decisions were reached but fell short of implementation, including the establishment of a common theological education and research center. Of course, there has been cooperation at different levels, mutual visits and theological exchange programmes; regional Oriental Orthodox Councils in the UK and USA have been formed with lively activities and the heads of the OO churches in the Middle East also have begun to meet regularly (starting in 1996 at the St. Bishoy Monastery ), but none of those efforts have paralleled that of the spirit and objectives of the Addis Ababa Conference.
It can be assumed that the failure to implement all the decisions of the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference is a result of political, cultural, and regional barriers. However, it stands that there is a continued participation of the OO churches in the World Church Council (WCC) and that relations with other ecumenical bodies have been consistently maintained. Hence, the question arises: if the OO churches are able to participate in ecumenical movements, despite their political, cultural, and regional barriers, why is it that to this day they cannot work together on establishing and maintaining a common platform with their sister OO churches, as intended by the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference?
It has been nearly fifty years since the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference but nothing significant has been achieved by the OO churches. What should have already taken place by now is conciliar unity, the healing of internal schisms (in particular between the Syrian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches) and the pursuing of inter-Orthodox dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox communion.
We should keep in mind that the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference happened while there was unity and peace between the Syrian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches. But since then a similar conference has not been achieved and it is partly due to the existing disputes between the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches along with the ecumenical dialogues that hinder inter-Orthodox relations from thriving. There are other responses to the question of why conciliar unity between OO sister Churches has not yet been achieved. Persecution, political instability, and war are normally considered to be causes for the diminishment of direct interactions between OO sister Churches. However, these excuses are not justifiable when in fact the OO Churches frequently participate in WCC activities and ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the Anglican Communion. For the past several years, the OO churches have taken part in an annual ecumenical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Interactions between the OO Churches took place the day before the ecumenical dialogue with the Vatican, and their interactions are limited to that meeting. Most OO prelates come together on a platform created by the Vatican to have a dialogue with the Vatican’s delegates, yet the OO prelates have not yet come together to form their own platform in the pursuit of healing schisms such as that of the Syrian Orthodox and Indian Orthodox Churches. The interactions between the OO churches must go beyond that of the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference and ecumenical consultations.
As stated above, although none are comparable to the 1965 Addis Ababa Conference, there have been efforts for inter-Orthodox dialogue and unity. One notable effort is the formation of OO councils of the Orthodox Diaspora; there are OO councils functioning in the UK and in the USA. However, it is evident that the inter-Orthodox disputes hinder the full participation of OO churches in all councils of the Orthodox Diaspora. These disputes, along with other problems, prevent the councils from developing into full-fledged national centers. Consider the dispute between the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches. Due to the dispute, the Indian Malankara Orthodox Church is not a member of the Oriental Orthodox Council in the USA. Disputing Churches need to set aside their disparities and reach a consensus despite disagreement in order to begin healing the schism or else remain in alienation. Other councils should be established in all areas where communities of OO faithful are present; for instance, there is a need for councils in the Gulf region, Africa, Australia, etc. These national OO councils of the Orthodox Diaspora should act as secondary structures to a World Oriental Orthodox Council.
Schism and Oriental Orthodox Unity
The OO Churches have gone through less internal schisms in comparison to the Eastern Orthodox communion. At present we have two major challenges: the dispute between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Indian Orthodox Church and the sad plight of the Eritrean Orthodox Church where the church remains divided due to interference from the Eritrean authorities.
The dispute between the Syrian Orthodox Church in India and the Indian Orthodox Church has deeply affected the unity of the OO communion. An inter-Orthodox platform mediated by all Churches of the OO communion could do wonders to bring disputes to an end, or at the very least establish a common platform to discuss important matters. We have classical examples of overcoming schisms and disputes, particularly between the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.
The Armenian Apostolic Church is also a classic model of Orthodox conciliar unity with two Catholicates and two Patriarchates. They exist as one single church with conciliar hierarchical structure, despite the various internal and external challenges.
Local Orthodox Churches always respect the autocephalous and autonomous nature of sister Churches with whom they are in communion and do not interfere in internal matters unless they are invited to do so. However, to overcome schisms there must be mutual and consistent efforts to build an inter-Orthodox platform for mediations and the forming of protocols. Division bears no good fruit; rather, unity is strength. The Church leaderships should keep searching for opportunities to build a common platform for unity and peace. There is no room for personal agendas, politics, or egos. Jesus Christ is the head of the Orthodox Church, His Body and His Bride. All are under Him and they are His servants, and it is our duty is to preserve Christian Orthodoxy and hand it over to the next generation as well as to help heterodox Christians understand their lost Orthodox past.
Opening Dialogues with Former Churches of Oriental Orthodox traditions
The Old Orthodox Church of Thozhiyoor and the Malankara Marthoma Syrian Church of Malabar, which are located in India, owe their origin to the Syrian and Indian Orthodox Churches. Although they have a Protestant nature, the very essence of their origin is none other than Orthodox.
Dialogues with Other Churches
Apart from the above-mentioned Churches, there are a number of other Churches that are directly or indirectly connected with Oriental Orthodoxy. A number of non-canonical Churches, claiming the lineage of Archbishop Rene Vilatte, have formed into the Federation of St Thomas Christians in the USA. There are also a number of non-canonical churches that claim to be associated with different OO mainstream churches or that claim to have Orthodox origins, such as the Celtic Orthodox, the French Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox Church of the Gauls. However, in order to establish unity with these non-canonical churches, the OO communion should develop a definite mechanism for dialogue with them. The idea is to develop continued and constructive dialogues in order to overcome schisms.
Dialogue for Unity with the Eastern Orthodox Family
The dialogue for unity with the Eastern Orthodox (EO) family is an unrealized dream. There have been serious efforts for unity in the past and several agreements have been reached. Official representatives of both families of churches have come to the conclusion that they share the same Christology and adhere to the same faith. However, the divisions continue to widen. Many prelates and laity of the EO family still address those of the OO family as Monophysites, despite the fact that OO churches reject such teachings regarding the one nature of Christ. This is fundamentally due to ignorance, a lack of interest and interaction between both families of Churches, and the absence of a continued and constructive theological dialogue. As many EO Christians do not consider the OO to be Orthodox at all, they regard the OO churches as heretics or as non-Chalcedonian churches. Both families invest a lot of their time, money and resources in participating in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican and in the WCC, and yet there continues to exist a huge gap between the EO and OO communions. We must revamp the Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the EO and the OO. But to rekindle the dialogue with the EO, the OO should first be strengthened internally. In general, there should be a refocus in the approach of strengthening the Orthodox Church to prioritize inter-Orthodox issues and then ecumenical matters.
A United Voice against Persecution
Christians are persecuted day by day around the world in different forms and by different extremists groups. A united voice again persecution must be formulated. As the Lord Jesus Christ has said in the Gospels, “And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.” The OO Churches should always be united against persecution and injustice. A strong unified voice of the OO churches will have a lasting effect. While several individual statements have been made by individual OO churches as well as by ecumenical bodies, such as the WCC and the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), a unified declaration is still to be made by the OO Churches as one communion for the detained canonical Patriarch Abune Antonios of Eritrea. The detained Orthodox hierarch and persecuted Christians in Eritrea remain in suffering.
United Presence in the Mass Media
The united presence of OO Churches in the mass media is of great importance. The challenges and sufferings of the Orthodox Christians, their lives, and way of worship should be communicated to the whole world. The presence of the OO Churches, their priorities, and the coverage given by the mass media for the churches’ events should be reassessed. Much of the secular media tends to ignore the OO Churches and regard the Vatican and the WCC as the focal points of discussion. A development of a common media center for OO churches in different languages should be a matter of the utmost concern and should be established as it can effectively help the OO churches to communicate their issues to the rest of the world. The whole world should have access to information about these ancient Churches and, for this to become a reality, a unified effort and unified policies on the mass media should be defined.
The Orthodox Churches should also use mass media to their advantage to promote inter-Orthodox relations amongst themselves and sister churches. In general, each OO church should allow contributions of sister Orthodox Churches in their events as well as in their publications and educational resources. Orthodox mass media and educational resources should be expanded with the objective of educating the faithful of each sister Orthodox Christian Church, including those of the EO communion. The purpose is to further develop a general understanding of Orthodoxy and create awareness among sister Orthodox Churches of present issues in other sister Orthodox Churches.
Our Priority: Orthodox Unity or Ecumenism
Let ecumenism bring in wonderful results. However, our first priority must be to unite with our own Orthodox brethren and then, once unified, face ecumenical dialogue together as one family. We have seen several OO primates making apostolic trips to the Vatican to engage in brotherly encounters with Pope Francis. The smiles, gifts, and hugs exchanged between the primates of the various OO churches and Pope Francis are commendable. As Orthodox Christians, we also love to see such brotherly affection exchanged between the hierarchs and faithful of all OO Churches. However, it seems that some Orthodox ecumenists only have a reunion with the Vatican in mind, dismissing completely what should be the priority. If you desert your own brethren, do not shake hands or smile at your own family. What is the use of shaking hands with a stranger? Let us first embrace our own brothers and come to terms with them. At the very least, we should be able to try to sit together and have a loving conversation over a cup of coffee. While we do have annual prayers for Christian unity, likewise, we need prayers and lively efforts for inter-Orthodox unity and the healing of schisms.
However, at times it seems to be that ecumenism is treated as the only priority and such focus displaces efforts for inter-Orthodox unity. There are many people who think that the Roman Catholic Church and other heterodox Christian communities are taking advantage of the internal disputes within the OO family. The Vatican has taken the opportunity to make several agreements with some of the churches of the OO communion. Apart from the annual Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic Dialogue, the Vatican has held separate dialogues with the Indian Orthodox Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church in India, succeeding in making various types of agreements with both warring Orthodox churches in Malankara (India). It seems that both churches are competing with each other, to see, who is the first, to sign agreements with the Vatican. This will, in fact, weaken Orthodox unity and to an extent has already become a reality. Once OO Churches begin to participate in ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican as one unified voice, then they will really strengthen the position of Oriental Orthodoxy. What need is there for separate dialogues with the Indian and Syrian Orthodox Churches? The Pan-Oriental Orthodox system is what will help the churches develop a conciliar line of control in ecumenical engagements. In the light of increased persecution, we need a united Christian voice. However, in our efforts to unify, the true faith of Orthodoxy should not be compromised nor should a common platform be used to make liberal theological agreements with non-Orthodox churches. We do, however, need enhanced social cooperation with other churches to improve relations.
In the past, there have been numerous occasions for OO primates to share a common platform, but some of them refrained from participating due to the existing disputes with sister OO Churches. We are in such a situation that the OO Church delegates only come together on a platform created by the Vatican for ecumenism. Let ecumenical dialogue flourish and let it bear fruits of Christian unity. The focus of ecumenism is well and good. However, it must not undermine the efforts to build conciliar unity in the OO family. Let us first commence to initiate a dialogue between our sister OO churches and pave our way towards the establishment of permanent Orthodox unity.
All sister Churches share equal responsibility for protecting the common rights of the OO communion and at the same time extending a helping hand to support each other. As stated above, “unity is strength”. I’ll give an example to demonstrate the need for inter-Orthodox unity and how it would help ensure the protection of common rights. The Indian Church has been a victim of canonical violations by the Malankara Catholic Rite (An Eastern Catholic Rite in India that is in communion with the Pope of Rome) since 2005. The primate of the Malankara Catholic Rite Major Archbishop and Cardinal Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal has stolen the canonical titles of the primate of the Indian Orthodox Church. The titles like Successor of Apostolic Throne of St Thomas and Malankara Metropolitan are canonical privileges of Catholicos of the East who is the primate of the Indian Orthodox Church. This title was stolen and officially published on the Malankara Catholic Rite’s website and in their official documents. This incident is equal to a hypothetical situation in which the Coptic Catholic Patriarch would be claiming the canonical titles of the Coptic Pope; the Armenian Catholic Patriarch claiming the titles of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Armenia; the Syrian Catholic Patriarch claiming the titles of Syrian Orthodox Patriarch; or the Ethiopian Catholic Archbishop claiming the canonical titles of Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch. This is a serious canonical violation that should not be accepted and has been officially brought into question by the Indian Orthodox Church several times, to which the Vatican has not yet responded. This issue has never been an official point of discussion in any of the Oriental Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogues and the Indian Orthodox Church has participated in all sessions without fail. Why is it then that the Vatican has not responded to the numerous complaints made by the Indian Orthodox Church? Without a doubt, the Vatican is being two-faced. They express ‘love and ecumenism’ using the smile of the Pope to win hearts and the pomp and glory of the Roman Catholic Church to woo the Orthodox ecumenists. Yet at the same time, the Vatican is in favor of Eastern Catholics who attack the Orthodox Churches.
It’s clear that each sister Church in the OO communion has a responsibility to support and help its sister Churches in times of need. The Vatican should not so easily be trusted for support and correction of injustices we suffer today as a divided church. The sister churches of the OO communion should support each other and participate in the ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican as one integrated OO communion. The sister churches should go for mutual bargaining and perhaps go as far as to withdraw from the ecumenical dialogues with the Vatican because of the canonical violation made by a Catholic rite Church against a sister Church of the OO communion until reparations are made. What we need is a strong inter-Orthodox alliance which will help ensure the protection of our common rights as an Orthodox communion.
There are several ideas to be implemented. Mentioned below are some important points for reflection:
International Headquarters and Secretariat for Oriental Orthodox Churches A World Council of Oriental Orthodox churches should be developed with a fully-fledged secretariat/headquarters at a desirable location. It should consist of a good administrative organization with a strong financial background and with a solid focus on implementing programmes and projects developed to benefit the members of OO churches. National level councils and local councils should be developed under the guidance of the Global Headquarters. Annual/timely meetings of OO primates and delegates should be organized to promote and ensure solid and intimate relations among all sister churches. Various organizations like youth forums and clergy councils should be developed. Steps should be taken to resolve any existing disputes between the OO churches by creating practical protocols and mediating compromises to avoid disputes in the future.
Education and Mission Activities An international University, Academy, and Research Centre for theological and secular education (with special emphasis on Orthodox Christian Studies, Human Resource Development, Leadership, Morality, Music, etc) should be established. There should also be opportunities for mutual exchanges of faculty members and the development of student and internship programmes for the benefit of all church members. Providing mutual cooperation in mission fields and the development of a common Orthodox Mission Training and Research Centre should also be considered for the strengthening and growth of the OO communion.
There are several OO clergy and laity who are perusing their theological education in Roman Catholic and/or Protestant institutions. Rather than developing an Orthodox framework of theology, as students, they are most likely to develop a Latin or Protestant understanding of theology. This is very evident in India, where the Theological institutions of both Syraic Orthodox and Indian Malankara Orthodox Churches are affiliated to a Protestant University. There still exist a number of Latin and protestant influences in the life of Syriac and Indian Orthodox faithful in India. Examples of this are the use of the rosary instead of prayer ropes, Latin images instead of Orthodox icons; but certain positive changes are indeed taking place.
The danger in the development of a heterodox understanding of theology as the principal worldview is that those with such theological frameworks could participate in ecumenical dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church and would most likely be more liberal in reaching a consensus that could compromise the true Orthodox faith. There is an extreme need for the development of inter-Orthodox centers of theology, exchange of resources, and the development of OO chairs and study centers in secular universities, even though there are quality centers like SOAS, Coptic study centers and the Armenian Theological Faculty at the Yerevan University.
Oriental–Eastern Orthodox Dialogue There is the need for a common platform for regular dialogues between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches for communion in the faith as a continuation of the existing agreement. The halted dialogue process should be revamped. An international council should be established for the purpose of resuming official dialogue at regular intervals of time, quick and timely follow-ups of its results, encouragement of mutual visits, cooperation in theological education, mission-work development organizations, and other areas of common interest.
Pan-Oriental Orthodox Council
There should be consistent and constructive steps from all OO prelates, clergy, and laity to strengthen this ancient communion of Christ and His Apostles. Each one of us who are part of the ancient OO communion has a mutual responsibility as there are a number of challenges to be dealt with. The challenges of language, culture, geography, political orientation, and ethnicity are to be triumphed over. The most important thing is to initiate the effort and attempt a common conciliar union. These things are only possible through consistent and serious dialogue.
The year 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the great and holy 1965 Addis Ababa Conference; it also marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, one of worst crimes committed against humanity. We hope that the year 2015 usshered in a new beginning, a new chapter in the life of the ancient OO Communion.
Jesus Christ and Dialogue for Unity
We know that Jesus Christ held dialogues with those who criticized Him and never took up arms against them. Instead, He won their hearts with His holiness, His words, His charisma, and with His love. He debated with the learned theologians of the synagogue, but never rebelled against them or refrained from his dialogue. We saw His fury only when some people tried to contaminate the holiness of the Jerusalem Temple with trade and business. The Orthodox Church is the living body of Christ and both the faithful and the episcopacy have a great responsibility in contributing to the healing of schisms to unite the broken body of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.